Some say volatility, rather than debt, is the best way to think about risk as an investor, but Warren Buffett famously said that ‘Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.’ It’s only natural to consider a company’s balance sheet when you examine how risky it is, since debt is often involved when a business collapses. We can see that Kongsberg Automotive ASA (OB:KOA) does use debt in its business. But is this debt a concern to shareholders?
When Is Debt A Problem?
Debt is a tool to help businesses grow, but if a business is incapable of paying off its lenders, then it exists at their mercy. Part and parcel of capitalism is the process of ‘creative destruction’ where failed businesses are mercilessly liquidated by their bankers. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, debt can be an important tool in businesses, particularly capital heavy businesses. The first step when considering a company’s debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
What Is Kongsberg Automotive’s Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2019 Kongsberg Automotive had debt of €280.2m, up from €269.2m in one year. On the flip side, it has €35.6m in cash leading to net debt of about €244.6m.
A Look At Kongsberg Automotive’s Liabilities
We can see from the most recent balance sheet that Kongsberg Automotive had liabilities of €256.6m falling due within a year, and liabilities of €402.9m due beyond that. On the other hand, it had cash of €35.6m and €278.8m worth of receivables due within a year. So its liabilities total €345.1m more than the combination of its cash and short-term receivables.
Given this deficit is actually higher than the company’s market capitalization of €260.6m, we think shareholders really should watch Kongsberg Automotive’s debt levels, like a parent watching their child ride a bike for the first time. Hypothetically, extremely heavy dilution would be required if the company were forced to pay down its liabilities by raising capital at the current share price.
We use two main ratios to inform us about debt levels relative to earnings. The first is net debt divided by earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), while the second is how many times its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) covers its interest expense (or its interest cover, for short). Thus we consider debt relative to earnings both with and without depreciation and amortization expenses.
Kongsberg Automotive has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 2.6 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 3.2 times. This suggests that while the debt levels are significant, we’d stop short of calling them problematic. The good news is that Kongsberg Automotive grew its EBIT a smooth 50% over the last twelve months. Like a mother’s loving embrace of a newborn that sort of growth builds resilience, putting the company in a stronger position to manage its debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But it is Kongsberg Automotive’s earnings that will influence how the balance sheet holds up in the future. So if you’re keen to discover more about its earnings, it might be worth checking out this graph of its long term earnings trend.
Finally, a company can only pay off debt with cold hard cash, not accounting profits. So it’s worth checking how much of that EBIT is backed by free cash flow. During the last three years, Kongsberg Automotive burned a lot of cash. While investors are no doubt expecting a reversal of that situation in due course, it clearly does mean its use of debt is more risky.
To be frank both Kongsberg Automotive’s level of total liabilities and its track record of converting EBIT to free cash flow make us rather uncomfortable with its debt levels. But on the bright side, its EBIT growth rate is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Looking at the bigger picture, it seems clear to us that Kongsberg Automotive’s use of debt is creating risks for the company. If all goes well, that should boost returns, but on the flip side, the risk of permanent capital loss is elevated by the debt. In light of our reservations about the company’s balance sheet, it seems sensible to check if insiders have been selling shares recently.
If, after all that, you’re more interested in a fast growing company with a rock-solid balance sheet, then check out our list of net cash growth stocks without delay.
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